Heroic Space Plastic

It might come as a shock to kids today to be told that it was never possible during the 1950s for kids to find and build plastic models of such legendary space vehicles as the spaceship Luna from DESTINATION MOON, the Martian war machines from WAR OF THE WORLDS, Buzz Corry’s battle cruiser Terra V, Tom Corbett’s rocket cruiser Polaris, or Captain Video’s Galaxy and Galaxy II.

The reason is actually fairly difficult to understand. The first plastic model kit, Varney’s “Fleet Submarine,” dates from about 1948, and the earliest space-related kit, the famous Lindberg Flying Saucer, dates from 1952. So where are the model kits of the Polaris, or the Terra V? Despite the successes of the Lindberg Flying Saucer, which can still be found at shops specializing in plastic models even today, there were not even kits for the flying saucers depicted in THIS ISLAND EARTH (1954) and FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956).

For about a decade after 1948, plastic model kits were almost exclusively devoted to automobiles, aircraft and naval craft. The kits were extremely simplistic– an aircraft kit would have no more than 7 or 8 parts, for instance, including the fuselage in two halves, the two wings, and the two horizontal parts of the tail assembly, and maybe a transparent cockpit canopy, as well as a display stand. For whatever reason, the kit manufacturers completely dropped the ball as far as space was concerned, not even offering kits of the well-known German V2 and the US’s own Viking sounding rocket.

The earliest rocket ship plastic model kits emerged in 1956.

All the space hero TV shows were gone from the air by the summer of 1955, overlapping not at all with the coming of the earliest rocket ship plastic model kits, which did not emerge until 1956. Even so, the only available space-related plastic models from 1956 through the 1960s were models of actual US missiles, a few designs of futuristic space vehicles contributed by engineers like Krafft Ehricke and Willy Ley, and a few Wernher von Braun-designed models from the Walt Disney Man In Space TV series. Paul Lindberg remained the leader, with a space shuttle, doughnut-shaped space station, and US Moon Ship, all from about 1958. Revell specialized in models of existing space vehicles, such as the Jupiter C, which launched the first US satellite. Strombecker provided some amazing kits of futuristic deep-space vehicles. But TV and movie tie-ins never seemed to occur to the kit companies, in these days, despite the success of the Walt Disney space kits. There was no kit associated with the MEN INTO SPACE TV series of 1959-60, for example, although it featured a very interesting Chesley Bonestell-designed space shuttle and moon ship.

To kids in the early 1950s, a model was still something carved laboriously from pine or balsa wood, or formed laboriously from cardboard. And kids who faithfully watched SPACE CADET, or SPACE PATROL, often tried their hands at putting together cardboard and wood models of the atomic powered rocket cruiser Polaris, or the battle cruiser Terra V– which confusingly grew two extra fins during the last two years of the TV show, beginning with three, and working up to five. I have heard from at least a couple of 1950s space cadets who built their own models of this kind, and still have them today. I have even heard from a cadet who created his own 5-inch Space Patrol and Space Cadet action figures, and had built a Terra V space cruiser precisely to scale with the figures!

Interestingly enough, in the early 1990s, it was briefly possible to buy some plastic models of early 1950s space craft! It became possible as part of the so-called “garage kit” explosion, in which a large number of individuals began to manufacture very detailed, very specialized model kits in very limited editions.

For example, in the early 1990s a company called Lunar Models, based in Texas, at last offered kits of Chesley Bonestell’s lunar rocket from the MEN INTO SPACE TV series (1959), the Luna from DESTINATION MOON (1950), Bonestell’s Space Ark and launch ramp, from WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE (1951), and even the ship designed by Bonestell for DESTINATION MOON, but not used there– it later appeared in such low-budget productions as FLIGHT TO MARS; IT, THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE; MISSILE TO THE MOON; and even THE OUTER LIMITS TV show. Other companies provided the two-stage rocket from ROCKET SHIP X-M (1950), a diorama of Commando Cody in Rocket Man flying suit battling the Republic Robot, and the XV-2 or Silver Moon space ship beloved of Rocky Jones, Space Ranger. Another company, Herb Deeks Models, went further back to provide models of the space ships used in JUST IMAGINE (1930) and FLASH GORDON (1936). Yet another company, D & E Miniatures, provided a very detailed model of the classic space shuttle/cargo rocket designed by Wernher von Braun for the Collier’s Magazine Man in Space symposium (1951). Several companies provided various versions of the manta-like Martian war machines and even the Martians themselves, as depicted in WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953).

As of April, 1998, I had still seen no model kits of TOM CORBETT, CAPTAIN VIDEO or SPACE PATROL vehicles. We’ve been waiting 50 years, and I don’t know how much longer we can hold out here, Captain! Our ray-gun power cores are almost drained! Hold on, Roger, that looks like a Solar Guard troop carrier– see that contrail? We’re rescued at last! An old Space Hero fan named Jack McKirgan is producing some garage kits in very limited numbers, of the classic 50s space vehicles, including so far the ABC Polaris, an ABC three-fin Solar Guard scout ship, the original Terra V (three fins), and the flying-saucer-like Space Patrol Vindicator Interceptor (seen in the pre-filmed title sequence on each broadcast), as well as the Rocky Jones XV-2 orbit jet. He’s also working on the Space Patrol X-100 battle cruiser, and the five-fin Terra V. He has plans for Space Cadet craft from the NBC run and from the Grossett and Dunlap juvenile novels, as well as Captain Video’s Galaxy II. The good news is, his kits sell for $15 postpaid, but the bad news is that he produces only a very limited number. Chuck Lassen has purchased two of the kits and tells me they are small (the Polaris is 4.5 inches long, the Terra V is 6.25 inches long) and consist of only one or two pieces, so that the major effort required of the modeller is providing a nice finish. Contact McKirgan directly for descriptions of the various kits and to place orders.

Anyway, if you inspect a catalog containing some of the kits available today, and you can remember building kits in the late 1950s (remember the Wolfman, the Mummy, Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster, from Aurora?), you will notice a big difference between the 1950s kits and current kits. The big difference is price. In the Golden Age of plastic model kits, they sold for 98 cents to $1.98. Mass-produced kits now sell for about $25 or more, while the “garage kits” can sell for $50 to $200, depending on complexity and the number of individual kits produced.

If anyone has built any recent kits that were inspired by or related to the space hero era, we’d love to have photos to post here! Needless to say, if anyone has a so-called “scratch-built” model of anything from the same era, we would equally love to see it.

Model Building Resource!

If you want to try your hand at building models of 1950s movie and TV space ships from scratch, there’s a new resource at hand, as of November, 2001. This is SPACESHIP HANDBOOK, by Jack Haggerty and Jon Rogers (ARA Press, 2001). This is a huge book, profusely illustrated, often in full color. It covers a variety of 20th Century fictional space ships, beginning more-or-less with Hermann Oberth’s moonship from Fritz Lang’s lumbering FRAU IM MOND, and is accompanied by very detailed scale drawings of each ship. You can find George Pal’s Luna, Space Ark, Shuttle, Space Station, and Mars Ship. You can find various Wernher Von Braun space program designs, from early to late 1950s. You can find one version of Tom Corbett’s Polaris, one version of Captain Video’s Galaxy II, two versions of Rocky Jones’ spacehip, and several versions of Space Patrol’s Terra V. Mysteriously absent are the Bonestell designs for shuttle, moonship and Mars expedition ship from MEN INTO SPACE. All the vehicles of Kubrick’s 2001 are well represented. For ordering information, write to ARA Press, 785 Jefferson Avenue, Livermore, CA 94550.


by Chuck Lassen

The earliest plastic kits I remember building (early 1950s) were a very nice series of antique autos– the model T, Stanley Steamer, etc., from a company whose name I can’t remember. They would not be saleable in today’s overprotective society! I remember you had to heat a knife blade over a gas range to get it hot enough to form the axle ends into a rivet head, to hold the wheels on! Many of these models were available, molded in various colors. I had a shelf full. Also had the great Lindberg flying saucer, and a very nice Sikorsky Coast Guard helicopter, also by Lindberg, I believe.

One of the few “space models” I was able to obtain by the mid-1950s was a replica of the TWA passenger rocket, that was featured at the original Disneyland in California [Strombecker, 1956]. It was a unique model, for the time, in that it had clear green plastic portholes and windows with light-pipe spurs that extended into the interior. Thus, by inserting a penlight flashlight through the removable rocket-tube cap at the base of the model, you could light up the ports and cockpit from inside! It looked great. The full-size rocket was the centerpiece of “Tomorrowland” and was associated with a “trip to the moon” ride. I remember visiting this attraction in the early 60s, shortly before it was demolished. You never actually went inside the big rocket (it was just something to look at) but the illusion was there. It was a neat looking rocket and made a nice model kit.

Another popular form of model kit in the early 1950s was solid wood kits of various civilian and military aircraft by Strombecker. These would go over like a lead balloon today, for they required a kid to have lots of patience and develop various skills. The kits consisted of very high quality white pine, approximately shaped into wings, fuselages, etc. with a packet of wood glue powder, and a sheet of colorful and authentic decals. With enough time and diligent effort, they could be finished into beautiful models. They may have been even more popular with adults who enjoyed this hobby.

Since, as you say, there were no model kits for the early 1950s space hero TV shows, I took inspiration from the Strombecker wood aircraft kits. I reverted to making Tom Corbett and Space Patrol rocket models from scratch…. I cut out a basic fuselage shape with a jig saw from a white pine 2 x 4, then proceeded to laboriously grind it down to a rounded body by working it by hand against a bench-mounted sanding disc in a electric drill. After hours of inhaling sawdust and sanding skin off my knuckles, it was ready for final shaping and polishing via sandpaper, working from coarse to fine grade. Then sealer was applied, cardboard fins glued on with airplane glue, and a final paint coat of ubiquitous Testor’s airplane dope was brushed on. I don’t think any modern-day kid would ever feel inclined to go through this trouble! In this way, I made the rocket cruiser Polaris, the rocket scout Orion, and the original (3 fin) version of the Terra V, which I painted bright red.

Probably the most popular kits of the day were stick model airplanes, attempted by only the most skilled and “coolest” kids. These kits allowed you to build the “internal skeleton” of an aircraft, by gluing tiny sticks of wood together, and were incredibly intricate. To produce a “flying” or at least finished-looking model, you could cover the stick framework with very thin tissue-paper. The first few I tried to make were disasters, but skills generally improved with experience, and by the time I got married after college, I was able to build some pretty decent looking models!!! I remember I had bought a 50 cent “Comet” stick model kit– a Piper Cub, about 30″ wingspan– when I was about in 4th grade, that is, in about 1950– opened it, couldn’t figure it out, and stored it away. I finally finished it in 1964– the year I graduated from college and got married– working on the kitchen table! After accumulating various damages over the years, it was accidently knocked off its ceiling hook and was “totalled” in the fall to the floor, in about 1985.

I built all of my models with great care for long-term display purposes. My fifth grade pal, Teddy, had different ideas. He built them hurriedly and sans decoration. I found out why. One Saturday, when his parents weren’t home, he invited me over to his house, where he proceeded to wind up the rubber band, light the tail of his balsa airplane on fire, and SAIL IT OUT OF THE THIRD FLOOR ATTIC WINDOW! It landed on his garage roof, but fortunately burned itself out before it could set the garage on fire! Rory Coker tells me that, in about 1957, he and his brother Jim took stock of all the space-related models appearing in stores for the first time, as well as all the great Aurora kits of Universal Studios monsters just beginning to show up as well. Then they looked at their fireplace mantelpieces, all chock-full of models of airplanes, ranging from the GeeBee racer to jet fighters. Then they went out into the back yard and staged a huge war, in which a wild assortment of aircraft suspended from metal wires mysteriously burst into flame and melted down to shapeless grey puddles. Rory says, “The plastic used for these kits turned out to be terrifically, explosively flammable; they would blaze up, spitting out molten, flaming globs of plastic! It was better than our wildest expectations. Also, the odor was frightful. For some reason we never put firecrackers in the models as some other kids did. Probably, we thought the joy would be too soon over that way. At any rate, in one Saturday afternoon we had created fine, clean, empty mantelpieces ready for new models.”

Those were the days.


by Jack McKirgan II

I’ve been building models, professionally and as a hobby, since the 1950s, when I was seven years old. I have a kit collection numbering over 6000, beginning with bakelite aircraft ID models from the early 1940s. I built my first Terra V model in 1954, out of hardwood and cardboard, like Chuck Lassen and many another youngster.

As far as my available kits right now go, there’s a 3-fin Space Cadet scout ship, the 4-fin Polaris, the original 3-fin Terra V, the Space Patrol Vindicator Interceptor, and Rocky Jones’ XV-2 orbit-jet. I also offer plans for making the launch ramps for Terra V and Vindicator. I have also scaled Space Academy and about half the buildings from the original Space Patrol Spaceport. All available kits are $15 postpaid.

I make the original masters out of oak, basswood and other woods. Balsa is too loosely grained for a master. The masters are lathed, milled, carved and sanded to final shape. All wood grain and pits are filled with fine-grained putty and the entire master is coated with sandable primer, then sanded again and finish-primed with Horizon miniature primer. A box slightly bigger than the finished model is constructed and sealed, coated with mold release and poured to the proper depth with room temperature vulcanizing rubber. The master is suspended in the rubber after as many bubbles as possible are eliminated. After 24 hours, a second layer of rubber is poured to cover the complete model. After another 24 hours the two mold halves are seperated and the master is removed. Pour channels and relief channels are cut into the mold. Another coat of mold release is applied, then dental resin is mixed and poured into the mold and allowed to cure. The mold halves are seperated and a complete model, or its pieces for a multi-part kit, may be carefully removed. That’s how these models are made!

Should you buy such a kit, then your hard work begins, assembling and gluing parts, if it’s a multi-part model, then filling, sanding, re-filling, more sanding, priming, sanding, repriming, sanding, polishing, priming and painting. Decals may also need to be applied where required and a final sealer coat is then needed. Sounds like a lot of work, but believe me, it’s worth it! The kits are simple, not highly detailed, and the final appearance of the model will depend entirely on the degree of finish achieved.

Right now I’m making the TCSC models in 1/700 scale (approx) and the SP models in 1/200 scale (approx). The models come with an instruction sheet, all necessary parts and applicable decals. These resin kits are somewhat crude because I’m not using sophisticated vaccuum equipment and there will be pits and bubbles that need to be trimmed and filled. I pre-trim as much as possible before shipping. Of course you can customize them as much as you want, but be aware that my molds deteriorate very quickly and so the kits are very limited in production, so if you customize one, you may not be able to get another one later. The molds are very expensive to produce and I only plan on one for each kit.

Spaceman’s luck!

NBC Polaris
NBC Polaris

A convenient on-line source for 1950s space-related, limited-supply garage resin model kits from a large number of different manufacturers is Scifimatters. Check them out if only to see what is finally becoming available.

Another on-line source with a large number of 1950s movie and TV related plastic kits is CS Hobbies.

Model maker Herb Deeks has produced a number of kits lately, including the Ralston Touring Rocket (!), the NBC Rocket Cruiser Polaris, the Rocket Scout Orion, Dr. Zarkov’s space ship from the first Flash Gordon serial, one of Ming’s space ships from the same serial, Commando Cody’s ship, etc. Check the model links above for prices and availability.

Recently easy-to-assemble paper models of the Polaris, the Orion, the George Pal Space Ark, Dr. Zarkov’s rocketship, the Von Braun/Colliers space shuttle, and many more classic 1940s-50s space ships have become available.